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Feb. 29, 2024, 3:57 p.m.

The Boston Globe revisits an infamous murder — and confronts its own sins along the way

“They’ve never said, ‘We got that wrong.'”

On a fall evening in 1989, Charles Stuart told police that a Black man had shot him and his pregnant wife during an attempted carjacking in the city’s Mission Hill neighborhood. More than 30 years later, The Boston Globe spent two years reinvestigating Carol Stuart’s murder, the bungled police response, and the aftermath. The result is a kaleidoscopic multimedia project, including a ten-part podcast, well-received HBO documentary, and an investigative series studded with exclusive audio, unsealed documents, and historical photos.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but here’s what you need to know for this piece: Charles Stuart was lying.

The Nightmare in Mission Hill project has had “an extremely long tail,” as Brendan McCarthy, one of the project’s editors, put it. The eight-part investigative series was first published online in early December. Readers spent more than 1.8 million minutes with it during that month, with several individual chapters holding average engagement times over 13 minutes. (The Globe last saw similar numbers with their series on lobstering and climate change published in partnership with the Portsmouth Press-Herald back in 2021.) The Murder in Boston podcast — compelling, nuanced, and brimming with Boston accents — saw more than 1.3 million downloads. HBO declined to share audience data for the docuseries but Murder in Boston: Roots, Rampage & Reckoning debuted to a flurry of positive reviews.

And just this week, the Globe released a coda in the form of a bonus podcast episode chronicling a historic apology from Michelle Wu, Boston’s first elected mayor of color, and some surprising attendees at the press conference.

 

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Many Globe staffers had a hand in the years-long investigation of the Stuart case. The credits for the series list more than 30 names, including reporters Adrian Walker, Evan Allen, Elizabeth Koh, and Andrew Ryan and editors McCarthy, Kristin Nelson, and Mark Morrow. The beating heart of the podcast, however, is its host, Globe columnist Walker. Listeners are treated to someone with first-hand experience — Walker covered the Stuart case for the Globe all the way back in 1989 — and a point of view.

“They didn’t just believe it. They rallied around it,” Walker says of Stuart’s false story in one episode. After learning the truth, Walker notes, “that sense of complicity was uncomfortable for a lot of people” in Boston.

The revelations were a shock. And as the truth — including the many holes in Stuart’s story and leads overlooked by police and media — emerged, the fact that Stuart had been able to pin the murder on a Black man without evidence was another upsetting jolt.

This is especially clear in the episode that revisits the media’s role in the furor. A lot of ink and airtime was spent on what was revealed to be a racist hoax, including an ugly column about a Black suspect who’d been cleared days earlier and a major error about an insurance policy on the Globe’s front page.

“From the time we started the project, I was always pretty adamant that one of the things we had to do was a media episode,” Walker told me in an interview. “I felt that way just from having been here and living through it and remembering how the coverage fed the hysteria at the time.”

“I guess I was a bit surprised by the lack of contrition,” Walker said, adding, “But I’ve been in the media almost 40 years — so I know that ‘I’m sorry’ is not something we’re really big on saying.”

When Walker brings his Globe colleague Renée Graham on the podcast, he has an idea of what she’ll say. The two met when they were both young Black journalists getting their start at the Globe and, as Walker told me, they’ve “never really stopped talking about” the Stuart case. In the media episode, Graham points out that the Globe never issued a correction to its original coverage of the shooting and initial police investigation.

“Here we are, you know, 34 years later, still no correction,” Graham says in the episode. “They’ve never said, ‘We got that wrong.'”

The Boston Globe considers the entire reinvestigation — and the “media sins” episode in particular — as correcting the historical record and a transparent attempt to reckon with its own past. Still, Graham says she’s not sure the news industry has learned its lessons since the Stuart case.

“I think that the media, still, is attracted to heat, not light,” Graham tells Walker in the episode. “Like you always say, this is what changed everything but it didn’t really change anything. I mean, look, they couldn’t even run a damn correction, it changed nothing.”

The media had a lot of dramatic material from the night of the murder, including a lengthy 911 call, shocking crime scene photos taken by a Boston Herald photographer, and even video footage thanks to a Rescue 911 team that happened to be riding with Boston emergency medical services that evening. Greg Moore, then the metro editor at The Boston Globe, also noted the role a fierce rivalry between the Globe and its Murdoch-owned competitor The Boston Herald played.

“We used to say to ourselves, every morning, whoever breaks this story will win a Pulitzer Prize,” Moore told Walker. 

Michelle Caruso, who covered the story for the Herald, says in the episode she had suspicions about Stuart’s story from the start. An avid true crime reader, she knew women are far more likely to be murdered by romantic partners than strangers, but the skepticism didn’t make its way into her stories. Some of the reasons why remain embedded in journalistic processes today. Caruso said she didn’t want to assign a possibility of guilt without sources and her law enforcement sources refused to confirm to her they were investigating Charles Stuart in any way — even telling her they were not checking insurance policies or looking into any possible motive Stuart might have had to murder his wife. Decades later, in the Globe’s podcast, you can hear how furious Caruso remains at her mistakes.

“I was too pissed to cry. I was mad. I was mad at myself, like, ‘How did you not get this in the paper? How did you let this slip through your fingers?'” Caruso says in the episode. “I consider it the biggest failure of my entire 27-year journalistic career. We failed the city of Boston, particularly the residents of Mission Hill.”

Many listeners will also be struck, like Walker, by the number of people who said they wouldn’t do things differently. Moore, the metro editor, said he does not have regrets, instead pointing to the balance of coverage across the paper, including an early column that told the story of a Black man killed that same night without a fraction of the attention.

“It was really useful to have been in the weeds,” Walker told me of going back and reconsidering the media’s role. “One of the things I kept saying to these guys was [that] reconstructing a story 30-something years after the fact is nothing like doing it in real time. It’s nothing like sitting there at six o’clock going, ‘Do we really have it or only sort of have it? What if they have it? Are we willing to get beat?'”

The Globe’s investigation also reveals — for the first time — that dozens of people knew the truth about the hoax and that police missed clues and ignored tips that Charles Stuart was lying. At least some of those who worked the case said they also don’t have regrets. Andrew Ryan, a Globe reporter and current Nieman Fellow, received openly racist messages from a police sergeant who worked on the case and went on to rise the ranks in Boston law enforcement.

After Ryan left a letter at the officer’s home asking to speak with him for the project, the former official responded with an unrepentant and racist voicemail excepted on the podcast along with “scores of vile messages.” (Ryan said the retired officer continues to text him several times a week.) So it wasn’t a total shock when I asked Ryan what stuck with him after years of working on this story and he responded with this:

“I am surprised that after three decades Boston city officials still refuse to be fully transparent and reckon with the handling of this case. Boston’s mayor did issue a formal apology when we published our work, but that came after City Hall and the Boston Police Department had resisted our efforts for more than two years as we reported for this project,” Ryan said. “To this day, City Hall and the police department have failed to comply with public records requests filed in 2022 seeking material from the homicide investigation and ensuing internal affairs probe.”

The Nightmare in Mission Hill podcast is not the Boston Globe’s first major audio project. The Globe previously created Gladiator, a podcast about a star tight end for the New England Patriots, Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted for murder. Like other Wondery shows Dirty John and Dr. Death, the podcast has been optioned for television. But this was Walker’s first time hosting and the first time dabbling in audio for many of the Globe staffers who worked on the project. It came with a learning curve.

McCarthy, a major force behind the reinvestigation, was named editor of Spotlight, the Globe’s legendary investigative unit, this week. He said that learning curve included pushing reporters and researchers to put revelations, reactions, and first impressions on tape — rather than in text or in an excited phone call to one editor — as often as possible. (“I’m so excited for you! But I’m hanging up and you need to put it in our group chat or group WhatsApp,” he recalled telling reporters on the story.)

McCarthy described the deliberative process — which unfolded not without disagreement over the course of the two-year investigation — as something akin to “a writers room.”

“It’s a little less traditional than, say, a typical print kind of product,” he said. “We were always bouncing off each other and listening to tape. Sometimes we’d listen and realize we’re fading or losing interest. We would look at each other, and say, ‘Look, we thought that would be great, but nope — that’s not it.’ And if we had a disagreement on something, we voted on it.”

Other advice for newsrooms thinking about tackling something similar to Nightmare in Mission Hill came from Andrew Ryan, who said that taking a turn with a shotgun microphone and headphones gave him an instant appreciation for the art of audio journalism.

“Put on the headphones. Our team of traditional text reporters took turns recording several of each other’s interviews with audio kits,” Ryan said. “Until I put on those headphones, I had no idea how loud an air conditioner could be or how a subject could ruin an interview by rustling a piece of paper. It also helped hone our interviewing skills for audio by listening to each other try to draw narratives out of our subjects. Learn by doing.”

McCarthy, who’ll lead an expanded Spotlight team as he takes over that top job, said the Globe was open to more investigative podcasts in the future. The Globe also hired Kristin Nelson to be its head of audio in August, when she was midway through producing and co-writing the investigative podcast about the Charles and Carol Stuart shooting.

“The Globe has really invested in audio,” McCarthy said. “You’re going to see a lot more in this arena from us.”

A growing newsroom at a legacy newspaper and investment in innovative and investigative journalism may sound out of step with other media news you’ve been hearing. That’s because the Globe is in a different — and better — position than many of its peers.

After a decade of losses and cost-cutting shared alongside its legacy newspaper peers, The Boston Globe has been profitable in recent years. The Globe has more than 250,000 digital subscribers after building what’s arguably the most successful digital subscription business in American local news. The newspaper recently set a “North Star” goal of 400,000 digital subscribers plus another 100,000 for STAT, its health and life sciences publication. Boston Globe Media also runs the ad-supported Boston.com, which is free to read.

Already one of the largest local newsrooms in the country, the Globe has been hiring and investing in new projects, including a New Hampshire bureau, the TV show Boston Globe Today, and ambitious works like Nightmare in Mission Hill.

Globe editor Nancy Barnes has been on the job for one year — a year in which many news organizations have turned to mass layoffs and buyouts. I asked her why the Globe was in a better position than many other legacy metro newspapers.

“The Globe has been strategic about growth and investments, and very smart and careful about how it spends money. We haven’t gotten in over our skis,” Barnes said. “That prudence has paid off in a stable budget, and a stable, well-funded newsroom that we can afford.”

“We aren’t as big as the Globe was historically, but we have the resources we need to do important, impactful journalism that makes a difference,” Barnes added. “For that, we are fortunate and grateful.”

Photo of columnist and host Adrian Walker in the Boston Globe offices by Globe photographer Erin Clark. The projection shows Globe coverage from January 1990.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Feb. 29, 2024, 3:57 p.m.
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